Just after the Toronto Film Festival premiere of “Thru You Princess,” someone asked the film’s star Princess Shaw how she could play to audiences of less than five people at clubs in her native New Orleans, singing heartfelt compositions she writes herself with few people there to listen to them.
“One or two people, you’ve got to give ’em a show,” Shaw responded without hesitation, the kind of no-nonsense response one would expect after watching Ido Haar’s wonderful film, owing its beauty largely to Shaw’s infectious personality. While the documentary shot between two continents follows “A Star is Born” trajectory, it is a story that holds as much surprise and delight for audiences as it does for its central character, who works by day at a nursing home and spends evenings recording music to post to YouTube and performing at any open mic night that’s available. One might suspect that Princess is driven by a desire for fame, but as Haar follows her, you realize she’s in it as a way of connecting with other people, serenading the elderly with a few bars of “Over the Rainbow” at work or sidling over to any street musician she sees to perform a duet. Still, it’s evident that the continual practice of putting her deeply personal art into the world with little visible return is taking its toll.
Haar doesn’t waste any time to show that someone’s listening, but he doesn’t reveal it to Princess. (Though it’s never fully explained in the film, Princess let Haar film her under the impression it was for a documentary about YouTube artists.) This allows Princess to travel to “America’s Got Talent” auditions and openly consider turning her attention to other things. What Haar knows that she doesn’t is a viral video artist from Tel Aviv named Kutiman has come across her videos and has started to incorporate them into his conceptual pieces in which he takes random swatches of musical performances online and mixes them as if they were meant to be together all along. Whereas Princess is big-hearted and passionate, Kutiman is remote and virtually expressionless, spending his time heating up his meals in a microwave and trawling the internet for talent.
The contrast between them, as well as the timeline that follows, may seem a little too pat in the way Haar lets “Thru You Princess” unfold, but it becomes crucial in giving the film dimension that these “discovery” tales often miss. While Kutiman’s inclusion of Princess on his latest track is evidence of an interconnected world, Haar shows how separate the two still are – one digging herself out of a rut she was born into with personal misfortune to fuel her original music while the other has found success reappropriating others’ work, likely able to have the time to establish himself from a place of privilege. Haar doesn’t hit one over the head with this point, but doesn’t ignore it either, which is why once the two find a literal harmony, the sound is so sweet.
Naturally, Princess isn’t kept in the dark forever about her online collaboration, but the revelation, much like the majority of “Thru You Princess,” happens in such a graceful and humanly tender way that you can’t possibly imagine it until you see the emotions that cross her face. But by then, you can certainly understand them, whether because of how much of herself she’s put into her music, the strong structure Haar has put in place to pack an emotional wallop or simply personal recognition of the swell of pride that overcomes her. It also doesn’t hurt that you’ve been led there by Princess’ songs, which tell a story of their own and are all actually quite catchy, showing a strong knack for hooks. Ironically, it’s the idea that she could break the cycle that makes “Thru You Princess” so special, but it’s clear enough she’s content to just be a part of something bigger than herself.